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Alex Haley and the “Roots” Effect

By Alondra Nelson

Twelve-foot bronze statue of Alex Haley
Twelve-foot bronze statue of Alex Haley. Photo credit: Joel Kramer

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The appeal of genetic ancestry testing, especially among African Americans, can’t be understood without taking into account the massive influence of Haley’s novel (as well as the miniseries adapted from the book a year after its publication in 1976). A potent symbol of the Black power movement, Roots stimulated interest in genealogy and affirmed the importance of African-American history. Sociology professor Alondra Nelson felt the effects of the cultural sensation, too, when the miniseries first aired. Later on, she would investigate her own genealogical roots and the unexpected story of how genetic testing is affecting race in America. In this excerpt from her book The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome, Nelson takes us back to 1977 and recounts how Haley’s work inspired her to begin her journey of self-discovery and genetic intrigue. 

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Like many Americans, my family and I were riveted by the Roots miniseries when it first aired in January 1977. I vividly recall sitting in front of the television with my mother, father, sister, and two brothers watching the story of Alex Haley’s family unfold in Technicolor.

My father, having just completed a tour at sea, reclined in an armchair, his feet up. My mother was on the sofa with one or two of us kids twined tightly around her. The other two of us were on the floor, alternately being admonished by our parents not to lie too close to the screen or told, courtesy of a sibling, to move out of the way. On Sunday evening, when it became apparent that we would view the first episode in its entirety—well past our bedtimes—we knew we were in uncharted territory.

The Roots occasion provided one of those unforgettable moments when a child sees her parents in a new light. Watching Roots, I also watched my parents, who were visibly stirred by Haley’s account. More than a few times during those eight evenings, my mother’s eyes welled with tears. She frequently shook her head and murmured “Uhm-uhmuhm,” as I had heard Mary, her Philadelphia-born mother, do many times. An inherited response for emotions that defy language, perhaps. My father, who hailed from New Orleans, was characteristically stoic, but occasionally allowed a “That’s a damn shame” during an especially graphic or tragic scene. I realize now that while watching Roots, my parents similarly watched us, their children. They were worried and protective, interspersing their own commentary between scenes, hoping to ameliorate the dramatic effect of this painful history.

The Roots effect expanded beyond our family home, perched on the edge of a craggy San Diego canyon, to my grade school, nestled in a valley. I was called Kizzy and Kunta Kinte by my mostly blond classmates during first period at my Southern California private school. But during our lunch breaks, the teasing gave way to earnest but clumsy conversations. In the schoolyard, we tried to make sense of what Roots meant for our interracial friendships, for our discussions in Sister Nora’s American history class, and for our nation in the wake of its bicentennial. In our own ways, we each wondered, Who are we in relation to this history? Did this really happen? If so, how did we get from then to now—and where do we go from here?

The Social Life of DNAHaley made his mark as a collaborator on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the late activist’s influential account of his political transformation published in 1965. This work emerged at the beginning of the black power era. Roots, published in 1976, and the television miniseries that was based on it, which premiered a year later, were culminating symbols of the era. This was the time of the Afro and the dashiki—of the “Black is beautiful” ethos. Between 1965 and 1977, black Americans turned to their African origins with intensity.

This interest in African origins and, in turn, genealogy was piqued in 1977. This watershed year also saw the publication of Black Genealogy by Charles L. Blockson, a primer of root-seeking attuned to the needs of African Americans, who faced especially steep hurdles in tracing ancestry. The Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS), the first national black organization dedicated to genealogy and family history, was also established in 1977. In the intervening decades, genealogy only grew in appeal for African Americans. In the last decade, with the decoding of the human genome, new tools were introduced that expanded the popularity of genealogy exponentially and, moreover, gave it multifaceted uses.

I began research for this book in 2003 after noting mention in the press of a DNA testing service that promised to help blacks trace their roots. I was captivated. At that time, genetic ancestry testing was in its infancy and traditional gatherings of genealogists were where the early adopters of these new root-seeking techniques could be found. I attended scores of these gatherings, large and small, throughout the country from Oakland, California, to Bedford, Massachusetts, and numerous places in between. My travels also took me to the United Kingdom. In these places, I encountered genealogists who had been using archives and oral history to reconstruct their family stories and who were willing to try the new genetic-ancestry-testing services that were just hitting the market.

I’ve also participated in events and conferences at which genetic genealogy testing was discussed, including meetings at churches, libraries, and universities, and conducted fieldwork and interviews in settings both virtual and concrete. I interacted with genetic genealogists and eventually, in a now well-established tradition of social science research called “participant observation,” I also became a root-seeker. I started conducting research on my own family’s history, which besides Pennsylvania and Louisiana traverses parts of the southern United States as well as the country of Jamaica, and became a card-carrying member of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

Building a bridge to Africa has inspired black American arts, letters, and politics for generations. Even if these speculative “roots” tests I read about never materialized, here a cutting-edge answer was being proposed to a central enigma of African America—a remedy that seemed ripped from the pages of a sci-fi novel. Speculation soon gave way to the news that a black geneticist named Rick A. Kittles had launched African Ancestry with his business partner, Gina Paige. Among the earliest direct-to-consumer testing companies in the United States, it was the first niche-marketed to people of African descent. As an ethnographer and historian of African America, with a special interest in science and technology—as befitting a child born from the union of a cryptographer and a mechanical technician—I knew that I had to join Kittles on this journey.

I used what social scientists call “snowball sampling” when conducting my interviews with root-seekers. In other words, I interviewed genealogists about their decision to use genetic ancestry testing and the effects of the results on their lives, and they, in turn, referred me to others. As I would discover, what was snowballing was not only the number of people in my interview network, but the surprising ways the test results were being put to use. That is, I was also being given an unexpected map of how genetic information was being used by individuals, communities, and institutions. Yes, personal and family information was gleaned. But in these conversations there was also growing mention of how broadly genetic ancestry testing was being used as the industry evolved. For over a decade, I’ve followed Kittles and African Ancestry, and in this time, have come to take a long view of genetic ancestry testing, a perspective that is more mosaic than the predictable, ritualized scenes of revelation and surprise we have become accustomed to witnessing on popular genealogy television shows.

As a wide-eyed girl watching Roots, and wondering about mine, I never could have dreamed a future where one day I’d have the surreal experience of having my genealogical results revealed to me before a crowd of African diaspora VIPs and civil rights leaders, and with a prominent actor, Isaiah Washington, as master of ceremonies. Although this experience elicited mixed emotions in me, I can personally attest that new branches on ancestral trees are the undeniable graft of genetic genealogy.

 

About the Author

Alondra NelsonAlondra Nelson is Dean of Social Science and professor of sociology and gender studies at Columbia University. She is author of the award-winning book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination and her writing has appeared in the New York Times,Washington Post, Science, Boston Globe, and the Guardian. She lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @sociallifeofdna and visit her website.

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